My rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Publisher: VIKING (A division of Penguin)
Length: 391 pgs
Format: Hardcover, checked out from local library
For the past five years, Hayley Kincain and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own.
Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over? The Impossible Knife of Memory is Laurie Halse Anderson at her finest: compelling, surprising, and impossible to put down.
I haven’t had a chance to pick up a novel by Laurie Halse Anderson since high school, so I was thrilled to come across this in the new release section of my local library. I was equally thrilled to find that Anderson’s writing remains impactful, nuanced, and just as captivating as when I was a younger teen.
Anderson explores the consequences of PTSD derived from war through the viewpoint of the daughter of a veteran, Hayley Kincain. Hayley is a perfect example of a child who has been “parentified,” assuming the adult responsibility in a father-daughter relationship and thus causing her own personality and growing-up to suffer. Anderson has no trouble finding a strong voice in Hayley, with all of the cynicism, paranoia, and apathy that most teenagers, especially in dysfunctional home situations, exhibit. As Hayley’s home situation worsens as her father delves deeper into depression and substance abuse, Anderson manages to also emphasize the dysfunction that runs through even the peripheral character’s home lives, from Gracie’s parent’s infidelity and custody battles to Finn’s sister’s substance abuse. The novel sends the message that (almost) every family is battling their own demons, and that while some children are dragged down by their family’s dysfunction, others are able to rise above it, and Hayley is an example of a teenager treading the fine balance between the two.
Anderson also creates a wonderfully realistic portrayal of a teenage romance in her novel. A little awkward and very cute, Finnegan Ramos is one of the most sincere and genuine guys I’ve ever read in a YA novel. His dynamic with Hayley isn’t perfect, they don’t magically have everything in common and often times there’s more awkward tension than chemistry. But the development of their relationship is so realistic that it’s hard to finish reading the book and realizing he’s not that funny guy spearheading your school newspaper. His dialogue was always witty and he never misses a beat in conversation. My personal favorite exchange between the couple:
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“You missed the bus,” he said.
“Need chicken soup?”
“Actually it’s my period,” I lied. “Killer cramps.”
“Chocolate and a heating pad?”
“How do you know that?”
“I have an older sister and my mom is a kick-ass feminist,” he said. “I’m probably the only guy in the school who can buy tampons without having a seizure. Look at that, I can even say the word. ‘Tampon, tampon, tampon.’ If you say it enough, it stops sounding like a word, know what I mean?” (p63)
I appreciate Anderson’s willingness to tackle tough topics in her YA novels, and while The Impossible Knife of Memory handles multiple forms of heavy subject matter, she is able to interject it with humor, affection, and the possibility that one can escape a dysfunctional home life and still form new and healthy relationships. Though the novel revolves mainly around Hayley’s family’s struggles of war, PTSD, the lack of support for veterans, and single parenting, Anderson acknowledges that no matter how mild or severe a family’s problems are, they can leave a scar on the children to carry with them, especially through adolescence:
“The world is crazy. You need a license to drive a car and go fishing. You don’t need a license to start a family. Two people have sex and bam! Perfectly innocent kid is born whose life will be screwed up by her parents forever…And you can’t do a damn thing about it.” (p260)
The Impossible Knife of Memory is a captivating, and at times tragic, read but it will resonate with readers that there are choices and attitudes that can be made and taken in dealing with family problems, and not all of them lead to misery. While the characters are a product of their environment, the focus is on their agency to change their lives through their choices and new relationships, an agency that is of crucial importance to young adult readers who are too old to be ignorant to their family’s secrets and dysfunctions. While there were instances in the book that weren’t my favorite (the at times over-exaggerated dramatic and fickle behavior of teenagers, the way texting is portrayed, Hayley’s continual excuses for her father and demonization of Trish, etc) the book delivers a broader message of family systems, childhood trauma, and teenage agency that is beneficial for all readers, no matter what their family situation.